A RISING MOON - draft sample
Year 22 of Pashtuk’s Reign
“Orla! Hurry, girl! You must come with us!”
Orla glanced up from cleaning the miserable shriveled potatoes she’d scavenged from the little plot in back of the hut; she saw a rain-soaked and dripping Sorcha at the crude wooden door. Behind Sorcha—who was not much older than Orla herself—was a Mundoan woman with hair turning gray at the temples: Azru, First Wife of the Mundoan officer Bakir, to whom Orla was Second Wife.
Outside the clouds were weeping and the encampment’s grounds were a morass of sloppy mud, but despite the weather, Orla could see other camp wives running through the lanes between the warren of huts. Orla’s eyebrows lifted at the sight.
“Sorcha? Azru? What’s happening?”
Sorcha only shook her head, beads of water flying from the strands under her hood. Her brown hair looked nearly black with the moisture. She rubbed water away from eyes the color of ripe sweetnuts. Azru answered instead, her voice tinted with the nasal accent of the Mundoa as she spoke in halting Cateni. She glanced out toward the camp, then her gaze moved quickly back to Orla. “No time to explain. Just grab whatever you can carry—anything you absolutely don’t want left behind—and come with me. Here, let us help you . . . “
Sorcha ducked under the low lintel and entered the room with Azru following. Orla could see that Sorcha was carrying a linen sack stuffed with clothing and household odds and ends, though Azru was empty-handed except for an empty sack that she thrust in Orla’s direction. Sorcha went to the battered chest at the foot of the bed; Azru busied herself elsewhere, grabbing Orla’s best teapot and skillet and wrapping them in a tablecloth along with a tinderbox.
Orla watched, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, not moving. “Wake up, girl,” Sorcha said. “Tell me what clothing you want to keep.” Sorcha was tossing the chest’s contents onto the bed. “Do you have any jewelry or keepsakes you must have?”
Orla touched the silver oak leaf that hung around her neck on a leather string: a gift from her mother and the only thing she’d managed to keep when she’d been taken forcibly from Pencraig, her old home. “Only what I’m wearing,” she said, going to the bed and starting to shove her least worn clothing into the sack. “Sorcha, Azru, what’s happened?” she asked again.
“No time,” Azru told Orla. “Just . . . trust me.”
“Is it Bakir?” Orla asked. “Is he . . . ?” Dead? Orla couldn’t bring herself to say the word, not knowing if she might laugh in joy at the thought and not certain how Azru would respond. She glanced at Azru, who was still tying up good kitchenware in the tablecloth. Bakir had treated Orla like a despised slave to be used in any way he desired; Azru,, however, had treated Orla gently and if she couldn’t stop Bakir’s abuse, she had at least sheltered Orla from the worst of it. For that Orla was grateful. Azru’s treatment of Orla was unlike that of many of the other Mundoan wives, who thought of the Cateni wives as simply chattel. “The other wives . . . .” Orla managed to husk out. “They’re not going to let us leave. They’re always watching, and they’ll stop us if we try to run.”
Azru gave a short bark of a laugh. “Most of the camp wives have gone to the southern gate.” She took a long, airy breath. “Orla, our Bakir’s dead, and so is Sorcha’s Alim. That’s part of why you must go. But not all. Please, Orla, no talk. You need to go. You especially need to go. With Bakir dead and what your mother has done, you must go. Now, before they realize . . .”
Bakir dead . . . She’d often wished that, even imagined this glorious moment since he’d beaten her mother nearly to death, sent her brother to the copper mines, and taken Orla as his Second Wife. She had no love for the man, only a smoldering and futile hatred. She’d attempted to escape from him a dozen times. Azru had always pretended not to see her leave, but someone else had always seen her and raised a cry. She’d been dragged back each time and punished harshly. That one, she’s the Mad Draoi’s daughter. Voada’s child. You can’t let her escape. When we get the chance, we’ll kill her for everything her mother’s done. We’ll make her pay . . .
Strangely, the news that Bakir was gone didn’t give Orla the joy she’d always thought it would. She only felt . . . empty, and sad for Azru and her children, who were blameless.
Azru had gone to the open doorway as Sorcha and Orla continued to stuff clothing into the sack. “That’s enough,” Orla heard Azru say. “Tie it off. Give it to Orla.” The woman tossed Orla her rough woolen cloak, hanging on its hook at the doorway. “Here. Follow me.”
Azru was already outside, and Sorcha moved into the downpour again after her. Pulling up her hood and putting the sack under her arm, Orla followed the two women. The encampment, built on the southern side of the River Meadham halfway between Muras and the Storm Sea, was alive with movement, as if someone had rammed a stick into a beehive and stirred it. There were people rushing toward the southern gate—mostly women and children, since nearly all the men but for the severely injured had gone south with Commander Savas to confront the Cateni army more than a week ago. For the moment no one seemed to pay much attention to the trio as Azru led them against the flow to the northern end of the encampment and the meadow leading down to the river’s shore.
“My mother?” Orla asked as they hurried
between the last few huts and onto open ground along the river. “Has something happened to her?”
“They’re saying there was a great battle near Siran,” Sorcha said breathlessly. “A messenger came not a turn of the glass ago with the news that the Cateni fled the field in defeat.”
“My mother?” Orla asked again. “Ceanndraoi Voada?”
Sorcha only shook her head. “She was mortally wounded, according to the messenger, and Ceannàrd Maol Iosa was taken dead from the field,” she answered between breaths. “But Commander Savas’ army suffered great numbers of casualties, too many for it to pursue what’s left of the Cateni forces. The remnants of the army are returning here, and everyone’s gone to hear if her husband is one of the dead or wounded. Far too many of them will be.”
Azru had stopped as Sorcha was talking. She took a long breath and stared at Orla. “The women—and the men—are going to blame you for the deaths and injuries your mother’s inflicted, Orla,” she finished, “and you won’t have Bakir’s presence to hold them back. I know how disgracefully he’s treated you, and I don’t blame you for hating him, but whether you know it or not, he did protect you when other soldiers or their wives would have killed you for the death and destruction your mother brought. You have to leave here, Orla. Sorcha does too, because without Alim . . . ” She shrugged, leaving the rest unsaid. Orla knew what she meant: the Cateni wives were the underclass, looked down upon and reviled. A widowed Cateni wouldn’t live long.
Orla turned to Sorcha. “Your children—Erdem? Esra?”
A look of deep pain crossed Sorcha’s face. “Azru has promised to look after them for me. The boys will be better off here than with us,” she said. “They’re half Mundoan, and Commander Savas will make sure they’re looked after. With your mother dying and Ceannàrd Maol already dead, I have to believe their prospects are better here than with me in the north.”
“Sorcha . . . ” Orla touched the woman’s arm in sympathy; Sorcha sniffed and wiped at her eyes with the rain-soaked sleeve of her cloak. “You should go back and get them. I’ll wait here, or I’ll go with you—”
“No!” Sorcha’s denial was both a wail of grief and a cry of desperation, and she looked at Azru helplessly. “Azru will take them in. It’s done. Just be glad that you miscarried the child Bakir put in you so you’ll never have to make a decision like this.”
“Enough,” Azru interjected. “Hurry now. Come on—I know where there’s a boat tied up on this side of the river. We don’t have much time before they notice you’re gone, and I have to get back for my children and Sorcha’s.”
Azru moved toward the river at a quick walk. Sorcha took Orla’s hand, pulling her along. Orla followed, glancing back once at the encampment where she’d lived for the last several moons. She could see people gathering in the central court and the gleam of armor on the soldiers marching in. From the camp she heard the long wail of a woman: a cry of grief and pain. The sound put speed into their feet, and the trio raced to the rush-choked bank of the river.
“There!” Azru pointed to a small currach sitting upside down on the bank, rain dripping from her forefinger. She handed Orla the wrapped kitchenware she carried. “I have to go now. Good luck to you both.” She embraced Orla quickly, then Sorcha, and turned without another word to run back toward the camp.
Sorcha and Orla went to the small boat, turned it over, and put their bundles in. Sorcha held the currach steady for Orla as she climbed in and took the single oar. She could feel the pull of the river’s current wanting to take the boat. Then Sorcha stepped in, holding the rope that had been tied around a rock at the river’s edge, and the tide-driven water took them quickly out as Orla paddled desperately.
The Meadham’s swift current carried them westward toward its mouth at the Storm Sea even as Orla and Sorcha steered the little craft slowly north toward the opposite bank, away from the life Orla had known ever since Bakir stole her from her mother and her home.
They rowed toward Albann Bràghad. Toward the clans of the north. Toward an uncertain and frightening future.